Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Egyptian Winter

Months have elapsed since I have posted on this blog, regrettably.   Here I want briefly to highlight commentary on the coup in Egypt and the more recent crackdown on Islamist protest.

The situation in Egypt confuses Western liberals deeply.  On the one hand, Mohammed Morsi was elected a  year ago to the Presidency in elections largely deemed fair and democratic: a leader from the Muslim Brotherhood with a democratic mandate.  On the other hand, the final deposing of Morsi was not effected by popular street protestors, but by the Egyptian military: an apparently popular rising whose will was finally carried through by a military coup.  This struggle does not break down on handy, cliched Manichaean lines - it is not the case that the Islamist leadership was undemocratic in any simple sense, though  in its activity in office it managed to shed much of the legitimacy conferred on it by the elections; it is equally untrue that the ousting of Morsi was merely an expression of popular democracy.

The situation is complicated further, in regard to outside influence, in that the Egyptian military establishment is funded and equipped by the United States, and is locked into agreements and deals with the US government and military-industrial complex.  It's often noted that Israel is the greatest single beneficiary of American overseas aid (vastly more than any actually poor country).  But the second greatest single beneficiary is Egypt.  Egypt is, effectively, paid to maintain its peace treaty with Israel.  The great bulk of the aid to Egypt (a couple of billion dollars a year) is to the armed forces.  Juan Cole (see below) points out that Israel has requested that the United States NOT use its leverage by cutting off aid to the Egyptian military.  But on the other side, the Muslim Brotherhood has  been bankrolled by very conservative forces in the Persian Gulf: the state of Qatar (an American ally, to complicate things further) has supported and funded the Brotherhood and its religious agenda in Egypt.

So, in fact, what seems to be happening is an increasingly violent face-off between powerful conservative elements in Egyptian society - the country's oldest extant political party, on one side, and its authoritarian military apparatus, on the other side.  What is absent or crushed in the middle is the space of civil society, perhaps.   Such has been the longtime penetration of Egyptian society and economy by the army, via  a species of cronyism, that its influence spreads far wider and deeper than just in security and foreign policy.

I've already highlighted the work of Adam Shatz on this blog.  Shatz writes frequently for the London Review of Books on the Middle East, and he is well worth reading now, for an angle that cuts through the mainstream banalities:

Egypt’s Counter Revolution

Juan Cole is a distinguished and well-informed American scholar of the Middle East, who lived in Egypt for many years.  He teaches at the University of Michigan.

It’s not about Democracy: Top Ten Reasons Washington is Reluctant to cut off Egypt Aid